Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"Rebuttal To A Rebuttal Of A Rebuttal"

Ken Levine mentioned, on a post we both can’t find anymore, that he believed that single-camera comedies moved faster than multi-camera comedies, partly because multi-camera comedies took the time to more deeply explore the characters. I disagreed with him. Ken then wrote a subsequent post qualifying his position. Now, it’s my turn.

Isn’t this fun?

The summary version of my rebuttal to Ken’s rebuttal to my rebuttal is this. And please excuse the rhyming:

“If you like the show, it isn’t slow.”

That’s what network’s, when they gave us notes, used to call “The headline.”

“If you like the show, it isn’t slow” is what I should have said in the first place, and left it at that. But that would be an eight-word post. People execute several “clicks” to get to my blog. I can’t give them eight words. They won’t come back. And they’ll badmouth me to others:

“How’s Earl’s blog?”

“He wrote a eight-word post.”

“Man! That guy’s wasting the Internet!”

You never want to hear that. So I fill it up. Give people their money’s worth. Even though, you know…it’s free.

One of Ken’s many astute commenters wrote:

I was watching HAZEL the other day (off DVD) and the tempo felt right. Not too slow. Not too fast.

Why? Because the commenter liked HAZEL.

And if you like the show…everybody?

It isn’t slow.

Another commenter, so as not to complicate matters, compared two shows from the same era:

ANDY GRIFFITH was single camera, DICK VAN DYKE was three. Both had great writing, acting, etc, and are simply great. I don’t remember thinking one was faster paced than the other.

Why? Because the commenter liked them both.

The bottom line is “engagement.” If you’re engaged with the episode, the time passes very pleasantly. And rapidly as well.

I am never engaged watching Parks and Recreation or The Office. That’s why they feel slow to me. To clarify what another commenter wrote, I am not, when checking the clock

amazed at how much time is left

because of how much has already happened in such a short time, I am, rather, bored to tears, and fearful that my life will end before the episode does.

Also, while I’m speaking about those two shows, a primary reason they both drag for me is that both shows are about the excruciating drudgery of their characters’ soul destroying work lives.

With one exception, I have never seen a boring character played interestingly. The exception was in an English play called Man of the Moment, where a wonderful actor named Michael Gambon was able to make a dull character fascinating. For the vast majority of occasions, however, boring is boring.

Likewise, it is very hard to feel energized watching people watch their lives drip away while they’re punching the clock at a monumentally meaningless job. I just feel sad for those guys. They never smile, and they always look defeated.

In the shows I worked on, like THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, WJM was a barely successful news operation, but the employees did the best they could and were always hopeful. That’s not a one-camera, multi-camera distinction; it may be, now that I think about it, a generational distinction. Maximum effort and hope seem like old-fashioned concepts. But that could just be me, being curmudgeonly.

“Those kids today, no spirit, no fire!”

Back to “If you like the show, it’s not slow”, before I make myself throw up.

Rebutting my position, a commenter wrote

Malcolm In The Middle never feels slow or underwritten to me.



Also, they’re right. I neglected to make the distinction. Just like THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW differed from ALL IN THE FAMILY, though they were both multi-camera comedies, single-camera comedies differ as well.

From its inception, MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE was stylistically constructed to move quickly, mimicking a live-action cartoon. Watch Brian Cranston. He’s a tightly coiled bundle of energy (not unlike Wile E. Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons.) A show can’t possibly be slow with that guy at its center.

A word about SEINFELD, before I wrap things up with M*A*S*H.

SEINFELD, though a multi-camera sitcom, may have told multiple stories through numerous short scenes, but no sitcom before SEINFELD ever stopped its story dead in its tracks to engage in some totally extraneous conversation. Last night, I was watching a SEINFELD rerun, where out of the blue, Jerry suddenly wondered:

“Why does anybody eat canned fruit?”

Which led to an extended examination of the phenomenon.

Did the interruption slow down the storytelling? Of course it did. Why did I revel in it? Because, first, the interruption was refreshingly unexpected. And second, I was amazed (and delighted) that any sitcom would take the time to do something like that.

As I mentioned elsewhere, when I wrote multi-camera sitcoms, any momentary digression was taken out and replaced by that the funniest joke the rewrite writers could think of that would simultaneously advance the story.

In the name of “moving things along”, not a moment’s time could ever be expended to ponder the question, why anyone would eat canned fruit? Which brings me to Point Number Three. I’ve actually wondered about that myself.

Okay, M*A”S*H. And then, goodbye.

M*A*S*H, the classic single-camera comedy from the seventies, was what they would call in Latin sitcom-writing class sui generis. Which, if you missed that class, means “one of a kind.”

Yes, M*A*S*H employed multiple scenes. Yes, it was peppered with Groucho-style, rat-a-tat dialogue. Yes, it told stories you would never see in any other comedy. That’s the beginning of sui generis right there. But the essential sui generis element that M*A*S*H had going for it was:

A war.

Wars are, by definition, not slow or boring. There are unquestionably stretches of tedium during wars. But underlying M*A*S*H’s tedium was the “any minute” possibility than thousands of North Koreans could overrun their position and everybody would be dead. A situation of this nature tends to capture the audience’s attention.

I imagine if thousands of any enemy overran THE OFFICE’S Scranton operation, they would greeted as liberators by the employees, and lavished with free paper goods, their arrival having provided the show’s characters a desperately needed break from their inexorable march towards oblivion

But that could be my preferences talking.

I like M*A*S*H.

I don’t care for THE OFFICE.

By the way, I misspoke, or miswrote, about MODERN FAMILY. I watch it and I like it. Though filmed single camera, it rarely feels slow to me. It also makes me laugh and makes me feel good.

Maybe that’s because it’s more upbeat than the shows about the slow death of the workplace. Or maybe MODERN FAMILY is more to my liking, because it was created and is overseen by two writers who learned their craft writing

Multi-camera comedies.


Neal said...

So is this discussion moving on to being about character, rather than solely pace?

Is one format better suited to offering the chance to get to know the characters and get you so closely involved the viewing time disappears? I find even with single camera shows I really like, they're much slower to reach the point where I might think about the characters when I'm not sat in front of the TV watching them

Neal said...

Oh, and if Earl and Ken can't resolve all their differences on this, are we going to have some kind of dance off?

Pumpkinhead said...

A few days ago you wrote that you "like" The Office, but today write that you "don't care for it." Are you saying you like it but don't enjoy it?

Gary said...

I'm not a writer. I could care less if a show's done with one camera or 3. What matters? Story, story, story. If it's a well-written, good story, you can film it with a View-Master.

Gary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gary said...

Appropos of yesterday's post: The Dodgers won a game last night at SF, 1-0, in spite of getting only one hit. And their one hit had nothing to do with the scoring. Is that some sort of karmatic pay-back for the Loney incident...sort of an everything balances out in the end? Can't buy that in Seattle or Pittsburgh. That's just baseball!

benson said...

Boy, first Levine answers a Friday question of mine, and now Earl mentions my post about AGS and DVD.
My life is complete! I'm going to run out and buy a lottery ticket.

Thanks, Earl.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

About a year or so ago, I read a piece about the question why things seem to slower the more you forget. The researcher came to the conclusion that new experiences make more of an impression. Repetion makes you forget which day it is. Linked to that was the observation that days filled with new stuff seem to last 'longer'. Like the first few days of a holiday. "I can believe it's been only two days, it feels like a week." I expect that something similar is at hand here. It is not 'story.story.story', which would not explain the appeal of the who 'canned fruit' discussion. It's 'surprise, surprise, surprise'. Which also explains why a couple of years ago all three camera sitcoms felt old hat and now they sometimes don't anymore. There had been too many, all using the same tricks.

Now somebody make me a network excecutive.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

I meant to type: 'why you seem to forget more, the older you get', not the mess of a sentence that ended up in my post.